12/30/2014 02:46 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

Making Sense in the Noise

Compassionate Eye Foundation/Chris Ryan via Getty Images

I am not teaching this year (new baby, my first unit-plan-less September in recent memory), but nothing has made me wish I was teaching as much as the events of these last few months. Grand juries declined the indictments of police officers believed to have been complicit in the deaths of others. The major cities of my life are convulsing with protest, angry words, recriminations. As I write this, the violence and the sorrow continue, most recently involving the senseless murder of two police officers in New York City.

I want to be teaching because I want to have this conversation, right now, with my students. These events are engulfing them, and maybe our classroom could be the place we start to unpack them. Maybe we would extend or pause the current text we are studying, and telescope it out: what happened? Why did it happen? How does it make sense to you? Of course, the choruses of social media and mainstream media provide more than enough information, dialogue, captions, and analysis to keep up the talk. But it is in the classroom that one may put all of this into relevant order and start the work -- what does one do in a classroom but equip students (in a variety of ways) to think about the world and their place and actions within it?

I asked around. Of course, not being in the classroom allows me the dangerously cheap seats; I can dream of ideal classes, enough time, and even windows, while teachers in the classrooms right now teach in the midst of testing, the ending of the marking period, school quality reviews prep and recovery, grading, long meetings and a thousand other pressures. Some teachers I spoke with didn't want (or couldn't with the contraction of the semester) disrupt the flow of their curriculum, and others, quite fairly, feel like a classroom can be the one place where the world does not have to be so much with us. With the technological desert created by the ban on cell phones and in-school social media activity, maybe this may be the place we can finally get some thinking done. But in my last few years of teaching, I wanted to push my practice towards conversations beyond (but supported by) our discussions of text and words, and to create and furnish students with models and tools to negotiate these possibly hard words.

I believe it is impossible to not have opinion about these events; it is my fear that social pressures and stereotypes, anxiety and a lack of information tend to blunt the ability and desire of students (and adults) to freely talk about their reactions. As I have been turning this over in my head, my thoughts arrange themselves into the symmetry of lessons, of opening questions, and of guided talk. What texts would I use? How much time would I, could I (yes, I am tight these days with Drs. Spock and Suess) give to this discussion, and how could I incorporate this investigation into the overall shape of the curriculum?

There is a danger of creating a room of noise: people shouting at each other, of different opinions shared but unheard, of others retreating to watchful silence. Even the fear: who am I to ask you to make this the currency of our conversation? Is this appropriate? What if in opening this can of worms, the worms, once released, become dragons? Again, I want to believe in the specificity of the approach, in giving students a place to stand instead of spurring them to reach for the easiest or first reaction, the hype, the overheard, or the expected response, and then to stop reaching. I have no idea what my students (imagined, in this case) would say, but I want to create the space for them to say it, or more importantly, to ask it. It is worth the risk to talk about and the model the process of unpacking something real.

I am lucky in my school that I can write my curriculum; while I adhere to the Common Core, I can choose my focus. Last year, my overall question for the senior year's ELA curriculum was "What comes next?"-- relevant in the next steps of college, life after high school, but also for inquiry into the processes of reading and writing narrative. A strong question opens up a region that accommodate multitudes: a range texts, skills, conversations, projects and essays. The events of Ferguson, of New York City, of Cleveland, of Oakland (...this list sadly goes on and on) fit into this question beautifully.

What does come next, after this, and this and this? I would open up the line of inquiry with an opportunity for students to write, question or just vent. I would give them the bare bones of the situation: the facts of the cases, of the grand juries, of the social unrest and violence following the decisions. I would ask, to jog their thinking: what is happening? What does it mean? What will happen next? And they can write. They can ask clarifying questions, but will mostly write for themselves to create a platform for the thinking, to have a place to stand as our talk unfolds. After five to eight minutes, they stop, and I would ask them to read over what they wrote, find a line, a heart, a question, something to be be shared without comment, and we go around the room. Students can write down something they hear from another, or write down a reaction, but the words stand and are unchallenged.

I may show the whole class a political cartoon, or a video clip, or a quotation to push their thinking as a class: how, and in what ways, is this situation discussed? What does the creator want to impart? And finally, do you agree or disagree? Students can respond, connect back to their writings, editing or adding to their thoughts. I could hand out two editorials from different publications, that package and code the situation in specific ways, and ask students in pairs to read through and annotate, asking the same questions to guide their reading. Maybe I would make this a silent conversation, and have pairs write their impressions and annotations to each other, making a record of changing minds, or an evolving understanding.

It is these fragments that I want to shore against a ruin; the ways we learn to listen and talk to each other in high school become the architecture of our responses and action as adults. Once we can talk about these things, I would want to bring it to the immediacy of dialogue -- how do we stand for our ideas? I like an exercise I called Thinking With Your Feet. We push the desks to the walls and stand in the middle of the classroom. Then delineate the sides: Agree, Disagree, On The Fence, Need Clarification. Then we start moving. I give a statement (often generated from students reflections from the exercises above) and students move to their opinion. The different sides have a chance to explain their thinking. There is always a herd and outliers, but they change as we walk through the statements, people switch sides as they hear information and ideas, they get on and off the fence, there are questions, questions that open doors, and walk people into new places.

Of course there has to be trust, and a strong classroom culture. Of course the kids have to want to do it. But I want to believe they do want to talk about it. Social media is exploding with words, accusations, polemics and pain already, but one thing I have learned from my students is that they want to have a place in the words. To be part of the conversation is to be able to change it, and something, as we have had again so terribly demonstrated in these last few months, needs to change.